People go to conferences for various reasons: Gaining knowledge and insight, seeing a new city, having an adventure, impressing their boss, scoring a trip away from their children paid for by the company. And, of course, networking.
Naturally, the usual networking advice applies. Prepare a few conversation starters: “What did you think of the speaker?” is perfectly fine. Have your elevator pitch ready. Make sure to actually listen to other people’s elevator pitches and ask questions. A good one is, “What’s the hardest part of your job?”
Instead of trying to be constantly witty and interesting, try really listening to other people, getting their business cards, remembering your conversations (and what people are looking for) so you can follow up meaningfully later. Everyone is thinking about themselves, not you. Might as well make that work in your favor.
How else can you up your conference networking game? Here are six tips.
1. Do Your Online Homework
It’s nothing new to suggest that you look up the speakers—and sometimes the other attendees—before a conference and reach out to some online. Obviously.
But you can do better than that.
Even if you’re just a regular attendee, not a member of some inner circle, you can blog about your conference preparations, what you hope to learn from the conference, and—if you’ve attended the conference before—helpful hints for hotels, travel, discounts, what to pack, etc. How about a “What I Wish I Had Known Before My First #IndustryCon” post? Offer people information they can use, and you won’t have to give your elevator pitch—people will find you and thank you for telling them about that money-saving airport shuttle.
Of course Twitter is huge for conferences. Find out the conference’s hashtag and start using it well in advance: “Who’s going to #industrycon15? First time in Phoenix!”
Also try tweeting about why you want to network. For instance: “Anyone else at #industrycon15 in the extruded plastics field?” or “Who’s getting in Thursday? Drinks at hotel? #industrycon15”
Here, from HubSpot’s white paper, is a way to up your Twitter game:
“To keep yourself organized, create a Twitter list of all of the attendees that you find. Title the list: “People Attending #INBOUND14” (substitute the appropriate hashtag) and make it public. This way, the people who you add to the list will see that you’ve added them to the list, making you look like a networking superstar. People love to follow leaders, so you’ll open up your networking opportunities.”
Leave a message on the event’s Facebook page. If it feels self-serving to post on a page that doesn’t have a lot of interaction, suggest that the moderators start an introduction thread (and then be the first to post your introduction).
A lot of people are very protective of their LinkedIn connections, so it’s probably best to save your connection requests until after the conference, and then include a personal message with each one. But if the event has a LinkedIn group, you can leave your mark there during the weeks and months leading up to the conference.
2. Kill it on Social Media During and After the Event
A lot of conventional networking advice suggests that you avoid using your phone and try to be present. That’s great if your strength is connecting with people in person—but some people are really good at doing things on their phones.
If you live-tweet a presentation accurately and quickly—as in, you’re tweeting the speaker’s best points every other minute—it’ll be pretty hard for people to ignore you. The conference itself will often retweet you. And it’ll become clear to the speakers yet to come that you’re “the media.” People will be looking around, trying to match the avatar photo with someone in the room who’s obviously on a mobile device or laptop. Other shy nerdy types will make friends with you on Twitter, even if they’re in the next row.
At an Instagram-friendly conference (in my experience, conferences populated mostly by 20-something women are extremely Instagram friendly), take photos with people (apparently a group selfie can be called an “usie”). You can post it right away—asking the other person, obviously, for their username. Tag and follow. Repeat.
If you take several shots (group photos, pics of the speakers), you may have too many to post them all (with flattering filters) during the conference. Plan a morning after the conference to edit and post those photos, tagging everyone. It’s the perfect time to get the attention of people basking in their fond memories of the event that just ended. And they’ll have a little more time on their hands to follow you back.
3. Get Your Persona in Place
A conference is an inherently artificial social situation. You’re not going to make a best friend and bond over your deepest feelings. You’re lucky if someone remembers you as “The one with the glasses…she was funny…a writer? Jessica, or maybe Jennifer?”
So work with it. Develop a conference persona. Especially if you’re shy—you probably don’t have the mental energy to be Amazingly Compelling Aisha Who Is Also a Great Listener every single day of your career, but can you be her for two days? Imagine you’re a cosplayer at Comic-Con. Some people are Mystique from X-Men for a whole weekend; you can be an actress playing an unrealistically amazing version of yourself for a couple of days.
Update your business cards. Get your outfits in place. Choose a signature look (don’t wear glasses on day one and contacts on day two, or bright colors one day and all black the next). Choose outfits and accessories in the same style. I love big necklaces—I wouldn’t wear the same one two days in a row, but I think “pink glasses, a blazer, and a huge necklace” is a pretty distinct look.
Imagine the qualities of your unrealistically compelling self. Maybe practice a little—go to a networking event in town in your persona—and then collapse on your couch while perusing that new stack of business cards.
4. Don’t Have the Energy to Work the Room? Take Amazing Notes—Then Share
There’s a reason you weren’t head of the cheerleading team or the prom committee. You were studying, right? Reading books in the lunchroom?
Use your straight-A-student skills to your advantage. Take killer notes on the presentations. Keep them organized with bolded subheads and bullet points. Add “key takeaways” in your own words and questions to think about later.
Tweet during the conference that you’re doing this. As in: “Taking notes now on @marysuespeaker’s awesome presentation at #industrycon15. Will post later!”
People will follow you or even DM you to make sure they get the notes. Post the notes on your own site or blog, or as a download with your information in the header or footer. Now you, the shrinking violet, have incepted yourself into everyone else’s memories of the conference!
(I have to give credit for this idea. At the Bullish Conference, which I run, artist Sarah Dale took lovely, graphical notes and then uploaded them to Google Drive as PDFs. Not that she did it to incept us—I’m pretty sure she was just being awesome and artistic.)
5. Create Your Own Schedule (It’s Okay to Opt Out)
If you’re attending a huge conference like SXSW, check out all the events beforehand and cherry pick which ones you want to attend. At smaller conferences, where everybody pretty much does the same thing, you’re still allowed to opt out. After all, you’re an adult who paid to be there.
If there’s a part of the conference that doesn’t interest you, here are some options:
Hang out in the break room, if there is one. The hotel lobby, snack area, or other “outside” territory is often a great place to network.
Make plans ahead of time with an expert in your field. Escape the conference for a quick hour and tell the expert it was a huge pleasure to have coffee with them and that you’re honored that they fit you into their calendar during your brief visit. Your potential mentor might very well feel flattered that you’re missing part of an expensive conference to see them. If anyone at the conference notices you’ve been gone, they’ll certainly think you’re a mover and shaker to have booked meetings while you’re in town.
If you’re an introvert who gets overloaded, take a break. Go get your nails done. Leave the hotel and go to a different hotel’s bar so you can have a drink without having to schmooze. Go to your hotel room and order room service. You’re not breaking the rules, you’re taking care of yourself.
6. Organize Your Own Events or Volunteer
Up your networking game by distinguishing yourself from being “just an attendee.”
Conference organizers often love volunteers—especially if you’ve already bought your ticket and aren’t looking for a freebie. Maybe the event has an official photographer, but not someone to update the Instagram account. Roles like this give you an easy intro: “Hi, I’m the official Instagrammer, but I also run a branding firm in Denver. I obviously just love this conference!”
If you’ve attended the event before, suggest or start some kind of mentoring or buddy program that matches newbies with conference veterans.
Take the initiative on going out for meals, even reserving a table at a restaurant ahead of time and inviting people along with you. This gives you a great excuse to reconnect with contacts from previous years or to intensify the conversation with someone you really want to meet.
If you’ve been to the conference before and know the scene, or if you’re a local, you could even run your own after-party or pre-conference mixer. Reserve a space at a bar and print some flyers with the time and location. (It’s probably a good idea to ask the organizers’ permission, or make it clear on your flyers that this is an unofficial event.)
If you have the time and money, tack an extra day or two onto your trip. If you’re there early—you’ll get the most eager networkers of the whole conference. If you’re there late, gather people for a relaxed brunch (go ahead and see if any speakers are still around—you never know!) and lead a conversation about insights people learned and what they’re going to do when they get back.
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